In 2008, Aaron Rodgers’ first season as the starting quarterback, the Packers got 481 snaps from their fullbacks and 1,250 snaps from their tight ends. Those are averages of 30.0 and 78.1, respectively.
This season, the Packers are on pace for 96 snaps from their fullbacks and 996 from their tight ends, or averages of 6.0 and 62.3 per game, respectively. They’ve operated out of the shotgun on 69.5 percent of their offensive snaps.
“West Coast” offense? Hardly. The Packers are a three-receiver, one-back, shotgun offense.
For coach Mike McCarthy, it’s all about being predictably unpredictable. This season, the Packers have thrown the ball on 72.2 percent of their shotgun snaps. That’s a high percentage, so defenders have to expect Rodgers to be throwing out of shotgun.
That explains why the team’s bread-and-butter running play has become the shotgun draw — and why it’s been successful, based on data from ESPN Stats & Info.
Of the team’s 83 running plays this season, 34 have come out of the shotgun for 155 yards — a 4.56-yard average. There have been 49 running plays coming with Rodgers under center, with those netting 137 yards and a 2.80 average. That’s a 1.76-yard difference.
Going to 2013, with Rodgers in the lineup, the team ran the ball 103 times for 610 yards out of the shotgun — a staggering 5.92 average. On 142 running plays starting with Rodgers under center, the offense gained 540 yards — a 3.80 average. That’s a 2.12-yard difference.
Running back Eddie Lacy has spent the lion’s share of his football career in a traditional offense — either as the lone back or in an I formation, with the quarterback under center. Following the team’s trend, he has been much more productive out of shotgun, though. This season, he’s carried 19 times for 81 yards (4.26 average) out of the gun compared to 34 carries for 80 yards (2.35 average) with Rodgers behind center.
The shotgun draw looks like the read-option. And, perhaps it is — without the running element from Rodgers. Frequently after the snap, Rodgers and Lacy stand next to each other for a fleeting moment, with Rodgers surveying the defense. Sometimes, it’s a play-action fake. Sometimes, it’s a run.
“It just allows you to be able to stand back and see what the defensive line and linebackers are doing so when you get the ball, what you’re seeing, hopefully you trust what you see and you just hit it and see what you get from there,” Lacy said.
Those running plays are a change for Lacy, who’s at his most comfortable as a one-cut, downhill runner. On the draws, he’s stationary for a split-second before taking the ball and going.
“If you look at running backs that are used to standing with the toes at 7 (yards behind the line of scrimmage), particularly big guys like Eddie and James (Starks), where they just open their hips and they’re ripping and roaring downhill, and that’s what they are, and that’s what they’ve done throughout their career. Now you put them in the shotgun, it’s a different adjustment,” McCarthy said.
No rest for the defense
McCarthy’s stated goal for this season was to use his no-huddle offense to get 75 snaps per game.
Instead, through four weeks, the Packers are running the fewest plays per game. Green Bay is averaging 55.75 snaps per game, which puts it on a pace to run 892 plays this season.
The NFL has play counts going back to the 1999 season. Only San Francisco (865 in 2005), Cleveland (865 in 1999) and Cleveland (859 in 2000) have run fewer plays in a season than Green Bay’s 16-game pace, and only five teams have run fewer than 900 plays in a season.
Of course, those were bad teams with inept offenses. Green Bay is neither. The Browns went 2-12 in 1999 and 3-13 in 2000, the Texans (896 plays) went 5-11 in 2003, the 49ers went 4-12 in 2005 and the Bills (898 plays) went 7-9 in 2006.
On Sunday against Chicago, Green Bay ran just 47 plays en route to piling up 38 points. Being an offensive-minded coach, the team’s quick-strike ability — and its potential impact on his defense — didn’t bother McCarthy.
“You’re studying the stats too much (with) a question like that,” McCarthy said when asked if the offense was “too efficient” against the Bears.
He’s right, to an extent. Being fresh wasn’t the issue when the Bears took the opening kickoff and took 15 plays and 8:30 off the clock en route to their first touchdown.
However, the Packers responded in 2:22 with the tying touchdown, meaning the defense was right back on the field. Chicago drove 13 plays and 5:10 to a field goal. Green Bay answered with a touchdown drive that took 3:47 off the clock. The Bears came right back with a 10-play drive that milked 6:21 off the clock. Green Bay, handed a short field after recovering an onside kick, needed only 2:47 to score another touchdown. That gave the Bears 1:03 just before halftime, and they came up about an inch short of another touchdown.
By game’s end, the Bears held a 77-47 edge in plays and won the time of possession by almost 13 minutes.
The Packers, however, scored five touchdowns and a field goal, so defensive coordinator Dom Capers was thrilled — even if his guys were sucking wind all day.
“If you’re scoring touchdowns, I don’t care how much time,” said Capers, whose defense has been on the field for 72.0 plays per game. “I’ve coached on teams where — I’m going back to my early years — where the defense would be sitting on the sideline and it’d be 40 minutes of time of possession but we were normally winning the games 14-10. You couldn’t make one mistake. Yes, we’re going to be out there more but that’s a good problem to have.”
It’s a good problem when the offense is scoring. It’s not a good problem if the offense isn’t scoring. At Detroit, for instance, the Lions ran 74 plays to Green Bay’s 51. When the defense needed to get a stop to give the offense a comeback opportunity, the Lions picked up a few first downs to run out the clock.
“The bottom line is you want to be productive, you want to score points,” offensive coordinator Tom Clements said. “We didn’t possess the ball for a long period of time last week but we scored points. So, that’s the bottom line. I think our first drive we went 80 yards in about two minutes. So, would you rather hold it for 6 minutes and get a field goal, or hold it for 2 minutes and get a touchdown? So, you like to (possess the ball) because it wears down the defense, as the game goes on but, ultimately, you’re looking to score points.”
Rookie center Corey Linsley could laugh about it in retrospect. With Green Bay driving early in the third quarter last week, he pancaked his defender while clearing the way for Lacy’s 7-yard run but was flagged for holding. It was a terrible call, and Linsley was ticked. So, one play later, he pancaked his man again. He was flagged for holding again, which erased Rodgers’ incredible 34-yard touchdown pass to Davante Adams.
“I was a little upset about the call beforehand,” Linsley said. “I wanted to get the pancake back but it obviously didn’t work out. (Rodgers) came in the following morning and he was smiling and said — I hadn’t seen ‘Mighty Ducks II’ but there’s a part in there where he’s like, ‘You blew it for us!’ So, we laughed about it. I apologized. I didn’t realize it was the play of the century.”
Chalk it up to the learning curve of a rookie. Whether you’re a defensive back who just gave up a long catch or a receiver who dropped an easy pass, you have to have a short memory so one mistake doesn’t compound into another.
“The first one I don’t think was a holding call in any world, but the second one, you can’t body slam a guy like that,” Linsley said. “I was just trying to get him on the ground and get a pancake block. I honestly was trying to sneak it past the refs. That’s the honest-to-God truth. You can’t do that. You’ve got to be smart with it.”
Offensive line coach James Campen has been pleased with Linsley’s performance. Due to J.C. Tretter’s knee injury sustained in the third preseason game, Linsley, a fifth-round pick from Ohio State, hadn’t taken a game rep with the No. 1 offense until the season-opening game at Seattle. Each week, Linsley has become more and more comfortable. The penalties wound up being a footnote in the game, with Green Bay settling for a field goal in a 38-17 romp.
“You have to learn from that,” Campen said. “He made a good block and you’ve got to learn to get rid of it. Don’t worry about it. You can’t worry about it now. We’ll correct it on Monday; that’s what Mondays are for. So move on. Corey’s a physical guy. The guy turns and makes an action as if he’s slamming the guy down. Don’t do that. They’re going to see that and it’s called and he’ll learn from that. He already had the guy stoned and the guy turns to try to disengage. Just release and get back in front of him.
“I don’t think it’ll happen again. Once you do something like that, you say, ‘Man, I already had the guy blocked.’ It’s a young guy’s mistake. You generally make those type of mistakes once. You shouldn’t make that kind of mistake again.”
— Christmas might be the “hap-happiest time of the year,” but every October day has been about tricking and treating for Green Bay. For the traditionally slow-starting Packers, this is the time of year they get things cranked up. They are 13-1 in their last 14 October games, including a four-game sweep last season.
Since taking over as the starting quarterback in 2008, Rodgers leads the NFL in passer rating (110.8), touchdown-to-interception ratio (4.08; 53 touchdowns, 13 interceptions), 8.77 yards per attempt and 53 touchdowns. The Packers are 18-5 in those games. The Packers have won seven in a row in October, with Rodgers putting up a combined 18 touchdowns and one interception.
— Playing on Thursday is an incredible challenge, mentally and physically, with three fewer days to prepare mentally and regroup physically. The Packers have done well on Thursdays, though, posting a 6-3 record.
“I think (the biggest hurdle) is just simply trying to put the last win or loss behind you and focus on there’s another opponent coming up on Thursday, which is normally your big practice day,” fullback John Kuhn said. “You have to really dig into the film. The game plans aren’t going to be super-extensive. Both teams have to really forget who they’re playing against and focus on the fundamentals and the details for those situations.”
— Including the 2012 playoff game, the Packers are 8-1 in their last nine home games against the Vikings. Minnesota’s only win came in 2009 — Brett Favre’s triumphant return to Lambeau. Rodgers is 5-1 with a 108.8 passer rating in his six home games against Minnesota.
— How hot has been Jordy Nelson’s start? Not only does he lead the league in receptions and receiving yards, but his 33 receptions in the first four games are the most in Packers history. He broke the record held by his position coach, former Green Bay running back Edgar Bennett (29), with the immortal Don Hutson catching 28 passes in the first four games of 1942 and 1944. Since 1960, only Nelson, Miles Austin (Dallas, 2010), T.J. Houshmandzadeh (Cincinnati, 2007), Hines Ward (Pittsburgh, 2003), Eric Metcalf (Atlanta, 1995) and Anthony Johnson (Indianapolis, 1991) have three games of nine-plus receptions in the first four games of the season.
The other sideline
— Big passing debuts don’t necessarily mean the dawn of a big career. Just ask the Vikings, who got a 348-yard performance from Todd Bouman in his first start in 2001.
Nonetheless, it was quite a debut by Teddy Bridgewater in last week’s win over Atlanta. Moving into the starting lineup in place of injured Matt Cassel, the Vikings’ first-round pick (No. 32 overall) became just the second quarterback in the past 10 years to throw for at least 300 yards without an interception in his first NFL start. (Washington’s Robert Griffin was the first in 2012.) He had seven completions of at least 20 yards.
McCarthy has said frequently over the years that it’s not so much if a young quarterback is ready to play as it is whether the team is ready for the quarterback.
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said the team was ready.
“We had a lot of discussion in the offseason on trying to figure out when the team would be ready,” Zimmer said in a conference call. “We knew he had a ton of ability and, really, Matt Cassel did a good job all offseason. I feel like they have a lot of confidence in Teddy. When I talked to a lot of the guys last week after Cassel got hurt, I talked to a lot of the guys individually about Bridgewater and they all have a lot of belief in him.”
McCarthy was impressed by Bridgewater’s arm, timing and ability to make plays on the move. That’s a byproduct of a player who threw 1,142 passes at Louisville.
“I think you have to give credit to the high school programs, you have to give a lot of credit to these college programs,” McCarthy said. “You go to a high school game now and they’re throwing the ball all over the yard. It used to be if you took a quarterback and put him in the shotgun, you had to teach him a whole new different world. Now, you put a guy under center, you sometimes get a quarterback who’s never been under center in high school and college. I think the wide-open offenses in high school and college have better prepared the quarterback.
“Some people call the NFL a third-down league, but third down is the toughest down in football. This is my opinion: I think these quarterbacks have a lot more experience because of what they do in high school and college before they get here. Where I think traditionally, everybody played in the I-formation, the quarterback was under center, the biggest growth leap that they had to take was to get ready for third down, to be ready for sub-packages and pressure packages. ‘Madden’ Football, let’s be honest, what they’re exposed to at a young age, there’s just so much more out there.”
Veteran receiver Greg Jennings was immediately impressed, as well. Jennings knows what a good quarterback looks like, having caught passes from Brett Favre for two seasons and Rodgers for his final five seasons in Green Bay.
“I don’t want to prematurely put the crown on his head already, but he definitely has everything that it takes,” Jennings said in a conference call. “The No. 1 thing that I noticed right out of the gate was his poise, his demeanor within the huddle in crucial situations (such as) two-minute. Those situations where you need your quarterback to be cool under pressure. That’s Teddy all day, every day.”
— The Vikings are the third-youngest team in the league (25.66 average). Thanks in part to the wheeling and dealing of general manager Rick Spielman, they’ve had seven first-round picks in the past three drafts to bolster the top of the roster (left tackle Matt Kalil and safety Harrison Smith in 2012, defensive tackle Sharif Floyd, cornerback Xavier Rhodes and receiver Cordarrelle Patterson in 2013 and linebacker Anthony Barr and Bridgewater in 2014). All seven of those players are in the starting lineup.
Without Peterson, the Vikings are counting on a lot of young guys on offense. There are rookies at quarterback (Bridgewater) and running back (Jerick McKinnon), a second-year receiver (Patterson) and third-year players at running back (Matt Asiata) and receiver (Jarius Wright). Those young guys have delivered.
Patterson set an NFL record when he returned the opening kickoff of the Packers’ game at Minnesota last year 109 yards for a touchdown. He’s already the Vikings’ record-holder with four rushing touchdowns as a receiver. This season, he’s rushed four times for 95 yards, including a 67-yard touchdown in Week 1 against St. Louis. Given the Packers’ trouble stopping the fly sweep/end-around, the defense had better be on alert. As a receiver, he’s caught 12 passes for 181 yards, and he’s among the leaders with 7.77 yards after the catch per catch.
“Once he catches the ball, he’s as good as anybody that we’ve faced,” cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said. “He’s explosive. He’s still developing in his route-running — he’s not where Greg (Jennings) is there — but he’s as good as anybody I’ve seen with the ball in his hands with the power and the confidence that he runs with.”
In the 2012 game at Minnesota, which the Vikings won 37-34 to get into the playoffs, Wright scored a touchdown just before halftime and had a 65-yard reception to set up a key fourth-quarter touchdown. He’s caught 11 passes for 169 yards this season, including eight grabs for 132 yards last week.
— Since the start of the 2007 season, the Vikings have rushed for 16,404 yards. That’s almost 1,000 yards more than any other team. They also top the charts with 4.8 yards per carry and 477 runs of at least 10 yards. Of course, that corresponds with Peterson’s arrival in Minnesota. Still, the guys up front should get some credit, so it shouldn’t be a major shock that Asiata and McKinnon helped the team rush for a whopping 241 yards against Atlanta last week.
“I don’t think you plug anybody in for Adrian Peterson,” Zimmer said. “We tried to figure out what these other guys can do well and what we can do well as a team. You never want to change everything you do for one guy but you try to adapt within your system what somebody can do a little bit better. That’s really kind of how we’ve always tried to do it. You have your system and then you figure out ways to do it. If you try to change everything, then you mess up a lot of different people. We’ve been happy. Matt Asiata played well last week. I thought he had some excellent runs after contact. McKinnon gave us some juice coming out of the backfield; he had a couple big runs. I’ve been impressed with him as far as a young guy that’s really learning how to be a running back (after being a college quarterback).”
Asiata ran for three touchdowns against the Falcons. He’s got two three-rushing-touchdown games in his career; only Peterson has more in Vikings history. McKinnon rushed for 135 yards — the only game of more than 100 yards by a rookie rusher this season.
On Tuesday, Packers linebacker Clay Matthews didn’t know their names but he knew their games. He called Asiata the “one guy who can run really hard” and McKinnon “the little guy (who’s) really quick.” Green Bay’s run defense is the worst in the league, having allowed 207 yards to Seattle in the opener and 235 yards to Chicago last week.
“As a defender, you obviously don’t strive for those goals,” Matthews said. “You try and be a little higher than that. Shoot for the stars. Yeah, we’ll correct that. We’ll address that. Obviously, gave up too many yards last week, but we have a team that can come in here and run. We’re going to have our hands full this week. It’ll be a great test to bounce back and show what our defense is capable of, especially on a short week.”
— Jennings ranks seventh in Packers history with 425 receptions for 6,537 yards and fifth with 53 receiving touchdowns. Jennings signed with Minnesota last offseason and did almost nothing to earn the five-year, $45 million contract. The numbers were decent — 68 catches for 804 yards and four touchdowns — but he certainly didn’t play like an elite receiver. In two games against Green Bay, he caught three passes for 38 yards.
Jennings, however, “is back,” Whitt said this week. He goes into this game with team-leading figures of 15 receptions for 204 yards and a touchdown.
“He’s such a creative route-runner,” Whitt said. “He’s very smart. He’s elusive. He understands coverages. He can catch the ball, and he has the ability to one step get out of his hips and go. Victor Cruz and him have the ability to do that. The combination of all of those things makes him a hell of a football player.”
Added cornerback Tramon Williams: “He’s one of the best receivers out there. Since he went to Minnesota, people tend to forget about him but look at the film and he can still do it all.”
Quietly, Jennings is climbing the NFL receiving charts. Earlier this season, he became the 121st player in NFL history with 500 receptions. He has 508 catches for his career; he’ll break into the NFL’s top 100 when he reaches 450. He called last season “challenging” and “humbling” trying to catch passes from the revolving door of Cassel, Christian Ponder and Josh Freeman. His outlook has improved with Bridgewater.
“A lot of people talk about team and just having pieces and having guys who just play their role, and that’s great, but you need guys who play their role great,” Jennings said. “You can’t just have a role player and expect to have perfection every time you’re out there or have great success. You have to have guys who are capable of winning their one-on-one battles and being a great player. So everyone needs someone else.”
— Third down is a major issue for both defenses. The Packers rank last in the league, with opponents converting 52.6 percent of the time. A huge problem is their inability to stop the run. Minnesota’s offense has struggled on third down, with a 24th-ranked conversion rate of 37.3 percent.
“If a team’s running the ball, they’ve got a lot more third-and-shorts than they do third-and-long,” Capers said. “When you get into third-and-shorts, you can’t unleash your pass rushers like you can on third-and-long. You can do more things; third-and-short, you still have to play for both. You look at the percentage over the years, the percentage of conversions on third-and-2-to-5 to third-and-6-or-more, and it’s a big, big difference.”
The Vikings are next-to-last in third-down defense, with opponents converting 50.0 percent of the time. That includes the Saints and Falcons combining for 19-of-28 third downs the past two weeks. Green Bay’s offense, meanwhile, is tied for ninth with a 47.7 percent success rate.
“Yeah, it’s terrible,” Zimmer said. “We have a lot of work to do. I’m extremely disappointed in that, we will put a lot more time and effort into it than what we have. It’s disappointing because that should be one of our strengths. ... When we are in position to make a tackle we have to make a tackle. We have to understand what the situation is with the down and distances. We have to understand how to rush the quarterback. What the rush lanes are and the concepts. We should be better.”
— The Vikings won’t be afraid of Rodgers. Not after facing New England’s Tom Brady, New Orleans’ Drew Brees and Atlanta’s Matt Ryan the past three weeks. Neither of those quarterbacks had a 300-yard day. In terms of net passing yards (passing yards minus sacks), the Vikings allowed a manageable 239.3 yards per game in those games on 68.0 percent accuracy.
“Obviously, they’ve got great, great weapons offensively,” Zimmer said. “This will be the third future first-ballot Hall of Fame quarterback that we’ve had to play in four weeks. It’s been tough road but I’ve got the ultimate respect not only for Mike McCarthy but Aaron Rodgers.”
— In the middle of the previous response, Zimmer talked about Rodgers’ ability to handle the blitz. In 2012 and 2013, his combined passer rating against the blitz was 117.4 — the fourth-best in the league, according to STATS. This season, he’s been especially brilliant. According to ProFootballFocus.com, Rodgers is 19-of-28 for 258 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions when blitzed. That's’ a rating of 130.5.
“He’s such a tough guy to defend,” Zimmer said. “He gets the ball out so quick. He’s the best in the league against the blitz. His mobility makes him second to none, along with his arm strength.”
Zimmer certainly had some success last season as Cincinnati’s defensive coordinator. Rodgers went 26-of-43 for 244 yards with one touchdown, two interceptions and a rating of just 64.5. When blitzed, Rodgers was only 3-of-9 for 16 yards.
“They’re doing a lot of stuff that he did in Cincinnati,” Rodgers said. “He’s a great coach, I have a lot of respect for him. He makes things difficult with the looks. They do a lot of the same looks and run different coverages and different pressures behind it. A key is to stay out of third-and-extra-longs because that’s when his scheme and his defense really thrive. If you can try and stay in more manageable situations, you can have a better chance at completing those. For us , it’s going to be about situational football and you know converting third downs and convert in the red zone.”
— Minnesota’s special teams are spectacular. Patterson returned kickoffs for touchdowns of 109 and 105 yards last season. He led the NFL with a 32.4-yard average last season — the fourth-best average since the 1970 merger — and he ranks third in the league with a 30.8-yard average this season. Punt returner Marcus Sherels ranked second in the NFL with a 15.2-yard average last season. Kicker Blair Walsh set a league record with 10 field goals of 50-plus yards as a rookie in 2012 and is 14-of-17 from long range in his career.
— To say the Vikings are fielding a new-look defense would be an understatement. Comparing their preferred starting lineups from 2013 and 2014, the Vikings have eight new starters in this year’s lineup. And one of the three returning starters, linebacker Chad Greenway, will miss Thursday’s game with a broken hand and rib. The other returning starters are defensive end Brian Robison and Smith.
New scheme plus new starters mean some obvious growing pains. Since a 34-6 win in the opener, the Vikings have allowed 78 points the past three games against New England, New Orleans and Atlanta.
“You always try to adapt to your players the best that you can,” Zimmer said. “Last year in Cincinnati was basically the sixth year of that progression of that defense. I had a lot of the same players the majority of the time — I guess maybe the last three or four years specifically. We’re still kind of in the infancy stage of what we’re trying to do and where we’re trying to go with this program defensively.”
— With Jennings and Nelson, this game features two of the top big-play receivers in the league. Among active receivers, Nelson and Jennings are tied for first with four career touchdowns of at least 80 yards. Jennings has seven career touchdowns of 70-plus yards, two behind Jerry Rice’s NFL record of nine. Six of those seven came with the Packers. Nelson leads the NFL with 33 receptions, 459 yards and nine first-down catches on third down, but has only two 25-yard receptions after leading the league with 21 last season.
McCarthy expects Zimmer to “tilt” his coverage toward Nelson. That’s what the Vikings did last week against Atlanta’s Julio Jones. He caught six passes for 82 yards (long of 21) and no touchdowns — all season-low figures — after piling up nine catches for 161 yards and two touchdowns the previous game against Tampa Bay.
“You’re always trying to affect what the opponents do and take away their best players. You will pay special attention to them,” Zimmer said.
— Maybe this will be the week when the Packers’ rushing attack breaks loose. Chances are, however, it won’t be with a big run. Green Bay is one of four teams without a 20-yard rush. Minnesota has allowed only one run of at least 20 yards, tied for the fifth-fewest in the league.
— Everyone has to start somewhere, of course, but Rodgers has 197 career touchdown passes compared to Bridgewater’s zero. Rodgers is three touchdown passes away from becoming the 38th to reach 200.
Julius Peppers, on the state of the defense: “It’s OK. The main thing is stats are only indicators. They tell a little bit of the story. They don’t show how we came away with two big takeaways when we needed them. We don’t get too concerned with statistics. We’re just going to focus on getting wins and takeaways are the only statistic that we’re really too concerned about.”firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.